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Who Needs a Balanced Trade Policy?

3:12 am in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

Do we need balanced trade?

It’s easy to recognize that after many years of trade deficits accompanying implementation of trade agreements beginning with NAFTA the US needs to change what it’s doing. Many, including Robert Borosage of the Campaign for the American Future (CAF), advocate for balanced trade and they contrast that with the so-called “free trade” policies we have now. The case for balance trade policy is summarized by Borosage this way during his discussion of the policies favored by the New Populism:

Our global trade policies have been defined by and for multinational banks and companies. They have shipped good jobs abroad and driven wages down at home, while racking up unprecedented and unsustainable trade deficits. Those imbalances, as the International Monetary Fund and former Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke have noted, contributed directly to blowing up the global economy.

The new populists demand balanced trade policies. . . .

So, we need “a balanced trade policy” meaning one that reduces trade deficits because it will support lower unemployment by keeping “good jobs” here, drive wages up rather than down, be more sustainable, and won’t contribute to a collapse of the global economy. But, is that the only or the best way to get these outcomes?

I raise that question because there is an important truth of macroeconomics to take account of. That truth is that: “Exports are real costs; and Imports are real benefits.”

This notion is based on the distinction between real wealth measured in accumulated products and services and nominal wealth measured in accumulated financial credits. Exports add to real wealth being sent to other nations; in return for nominal wealth received from them (financial credits). Imports add to real wealth being received from other nations; in return for nominal wealth we send to them.

So, would we rather send fiat money to other nations and add to real wealth in return, or would we rather add to their real wealth to and get their fiat money or our old fiat money back in return? My answer is that other things being equal, we’d prefer the first alternative rather than the second, meaning that trade deficits are better than trade surpluses, at least in the short run.

The problem with this answer is that other things are not equal, in the sense that if the Government does nothing to compensate for their shorter and longer-term effects, then the problems highlighted above do result from continuous “free trade” policy supporting continuous trade deficits. On the other hand, these effects of trade deficits can be avoided without implementing balanced trade as a continuous policy. How?

First, trade deficits cause aggregate demand leakages, which is what causes higher unemployment and lower wages. But, we don’t have to accept that outcome. We can implement a Job Guarantee program, along with other Government spending such as State Revenue Sharing, infrastructure spending, and Social Security payroll tax holidays to replace the demand lost to trade deficits.

Of course, we’d have to pass those measures. But what’s better, from a progressive point of view, doing these things or preventing Americans from buying goods and services (acquiring real wealth) from other nations that they would like to buy?

What about the lost jobs themselves? If they were “good jobs” would the new jobs produced by Government spending and SS payroll tax cuts be “good jobs” too? That depends on how the Government implements its Job Guarantee (JG) program. If the JG pays a living wage and provides Medicare access and good fringe benefits to those in the JG, then private sector people will have to better what the JG offers to get employees, and the wage floor will be raised radically over current levels and that will raise wages all along the line.

So, from the standpoint of adequacy of pay, there will be many more “good jobs” then there are today. The quality of the jobs will also improve if the JG is implemented to allow local non-profits to define jobs that will produce socially valuable outcomes for people. The role of the Federal Government would be the funder of the JG program; but local non-profits, communities, and the JG participants themselves would define the jobs in the program, exerting pressure on the private sector to increase the quality of the jobs offered in that sector.

One way to look at the situation is that trade deficits and the demand leakage they create, also provide an opportunity for the Government to employ people on social entrepreneurial projects producing public good and commons improvements of significant value; filling needs that cannot be filled by the private profit-motivated market. The purpose of the JG jobs provided is to provide a transition for displaced former employees of dying industries.

This opportunity is a good thing provided the Government takes advantage of it, because it provides not only transition jobs for individuals, but also a transition period for the private sector to develop new industries and new jobs based on new technologies while the potential labor force continues working at other jobs having social value.

Of course, the US Government hasn’t been doing that, preferring instead to leave people in an unemployed buffer stock that depresses wages and increases inequality. But the truly progressive remedy for that is to implement the Job Guarantee and other Government deficit spending and middle class tax cut programs, not to pursue a policy of balanced trade.

Second, it’s very popular today to say that x, or y, or z is “unsustainable” without saying what they mean by that term. From my point of view, policy unsustainability means that a policy cannot be followed forever without undermining the capacity to follow that policy sooner or later. The important thing here is to notice that the Government’s policy isn’t to run trade deficits forever. But just to allow trade to flow freely and let the trade deficit float. So, the issue here is whether that policy is sustainable. With exceptions to be noted below, I think it is.

The reason why it is sustainable, is that it is, in the end, self-correcting. Eventually, other nations will tire of selling the real wealth they produce in return for our nominal wealth, the electronic bits of information that eventually end up in their accounts at our Federal Reserve Banks and they will sell them instead to their own consumers. At that time, the Government’s policy of letting the trade balance float will produce smaller trade deficits or even surpluses, if the US Dollar becomes sufficiently unattractive. Until that time however, having trade deficits resulting from a trade policy that allows the trade balance to float is perfectly sustainable with some exceptions I’ll now consider.

Third, Robert Borosage refers to the view of the IMF and Ben Bernanke that continuous trade deficits of the United States contributed to the Great Crash. The chain of causation, according to Bernanke, is that the accumulation of US Dollar credits by Asian nations led to their investing in US and mortgage-based securities, causing a bubble in MBSs which then, in the crash of 2008 spread the US financial crisis around the world contributing a potent feedback loop to the crash. The general idea is that continuing trade deficits would, over time, concentrate the dollar assets of foreign nations in risky securities vulnerable to financial downward spirals.

This mechanism may or may not be a factor whose importance is great enough to render running continuous deficits unsustainable. But, if it is, then the remedy is easy. Pass legislation banning speculation in financial instruments that carry any systemic risk by entities with large dollar holdings. End of story and of this possible factor in promoting unsustainability.

Fourth, the remaining problem with letting trade happen and allowing the trade balance to float is that there may be industries or areas of endeavor that are vital to the defense of the United States, and/or its further economic development. Free trade in these areas cannot be allowed, since it risks destroying vital US skills and capabilities or potential for innovations. We need a US industrial policy to identify these areas, to decide how to subsidize them, and to ensure that they are maintained or developed. Once we have that, along with the other policies mentioned earlier, a policy of letting the trade balance float, even if it results in continuous trade deficits will be sustainable without causing unemployment, reduced wages, financial crashes, or making the United States dangerously dependent on other nations for political and economic sustainability.

Finally, let’s review the bidding again. The new populists and writers like Borosage think that progressive trade policy is balanced trade. In contrast, I think that a policy of unrestricted trade, taking advantage of the willingness of other nations to send their real wealth to the US is better for us and also seems be what our trading partners want right now.

However, to make that work for the US, we need full employment policies including a Job Guarantee program at a living wage with full fringe benefits, as well as other policies designed to compensate for demand leakages from trade deficits and private sector savings. In addition, we need to prevent investment of dollar savings in risky financial instruments such as Mortgage-Backed Securities (MBSs) and derivatives, and lastly, we need an industrial policy.

So, which is more “progressive” and also “populist”: balanced trade policy, or unrestricted trade, modified by full employment at a living wage, strict regulation of investments in financial instruments, and industrial, policies? I think it’s the second alternative and that progressives and populists ought to forget balanced trade and embrace it.

(Cross-posted from New Economic Perspectives.)

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Why Quantitative Easing Won’t Work

9:12 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

Today I was planning on a post about Quantitative Easing (QE) today, because it seemed to me that it would never work. However, today, Randy Wray beat me to it with another great post, this time at ND20, reviewing the whole situation in detail, placing it in political context, and explaining why it’s very unlikely that it will allow the economy to recover much more than it has already. Here are some key quotes from Randy’s piece.

. . . The Fed is in a Catch 22: Interest rate policy will not spur borrowing until economic recovery is underway, but recovery will not begin until spending picks up. Only jobs and income will stimulate spending, but the Fed cannot do anything in those areas.

This is the basic problem. Fooling with interest rates to increase business borrowing just won’t stimulate much spending in the present situation of the American economy.

No matter how mad at banks we might be, we have got to leave them with a way to return to profitability that does not rely on speculative bubbles, pump-and-dump schemes, and accounting fraud. Pushing returns on relatively safe assets toward zero is not the answer. Pumping banks full of reserves that pay very low interest will not help, either. What Bernanke might understand, but most in the mainstream media do not, is that banks do not and cannot lend reserves. Reserves are just an entry on the Fed’s balance sheet — a liability of the Fed and an asset of banks. Rather, banks make loans by accepting the IOU of the borrower and issuing a demand deposit. Only financial institutions have access to the Fed’s balance sheet, so it is literally impossible for a bank to lend out reserves.

That’s the key; QE will flood the banks with reserves. But banks can’t lend reserves. They need borrowers to lend, and they’re unlikely to get borrowers unless there’s sufficient demand out there. No one will do “if you build it, they will come,” these days.  . . . Read the rest of this entry →

The Budget Deficit and the Versailles Rag

7:48 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

On Friday, the Government reported its 2010 Fiscal Year results. Here are some fragments from a “news” article in WaPo by Vincent Del Giudice.

The U.S. government posted its second straight annual budget deficit in excess of $1 trillion as lingering unemployment constrained tax revenue.

The shortfall totaled $1.294 trillion in the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, second only to the $1.416 trillion deficit in 2009, the Treasury Department said today in Washington. . . .

. . . The national debt totals more than $13 trillion, exceeding the size of the economy, unadjusted for inflation. . . .

In September, the budget shortfall was $34.5 billion, the second straight year of uninterrupted monthly deficits, compared with $45.2 billion in September 2009, according to the Treasury. . . . .

It may seem that this is a piece of “objective” reporting from the WaPo because the deficit, roughly, is just the difference between Government spending and tax revenues, and all the article does is to point out what this difference is and also the size of the accumulated deficit from the beginning of the Republic up through the end of fiscal 2010. But the article clearly puts a negative connotation on the deficit.  . . . Read the rest of this entry →

G20 Says Expansionary Fiscal Policy Not Sustainable

10:16 am in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone


Warren Mosler

With permission of the author

The G20 has dropped its support for fiscal expansion. The deficit hawks are prevailing. But why is that? We all either know or should know that operationally Federal spending is not constrained by revenues, as Chairman Bernanke stated last year, when asked on ’60 Minutes’ by Scott Pelley where the funds given to the banks came from:

"…we simply use the computer to mark up the size of the account that they have with the Fed."

We know that when the Fed spends on behalf of the Treasury it simply credits a member bank or foreign government’s reserve account at the Fed.

We know that a US Treasury security is a credit balance in a securities account, also at the Fed.

We know that buying a Treasury security means US dollars (numbers on the Fed’s spreadsheet) shift from a Fed reserve account to a Fed securities account, which adds to the ‘national debt.’

We know that government deficits = ‘non government’ saving (net dollar financial assets) to the penny, as a matter of national income accounting.

And we know paying off the Treasury securities happens continuously when Treasury securities mature and the Fed simply shifts those US dollars from the securities account back to a Fed reserve account (including the interest).

So why should we care if US dollars are in a Fed reserve account or a Fed securities account?

We should not, yet most still do.

There are two featured sides to the argument, pro and con, deficit hawks and deficit doves. The deficit hawks aren’t the problem. They have no argument that makes any sense as a point of simple monetary operations. There is no such thing as the Federal Government running out of money, being dependent on foreigners or anyone else for funding to be able to spend, and the US is not the next Greece.

The problem is the deficit doves featured by the media don’t understand actual monetary operations and reserve accounting, and so they take the same ‘fundamentally wrong’ positions as the deficit hawks. The difference is nothing more than timing and degree. In effect, the media is showing only one side of the argument.

To be a credible media deficit dove, you agree deficits are ‘bad’ but only in the long term, arguing that in the short term we need tax cuts or spending increases now, and deficit reduction later. You agree that deficits can be too high, but argue they have been higher, particularly in World War II, so current levels should be easily manageable, further agreeing there is a level that could not be manageable. You agree markets could be ‘unfriendly’ and a lack of confidence could translate into far higher interest rates, but argue that the current low rates for Treasury securities are the markets telling us that currently they do have confidence in the US and they are eager to fund current deficits. You agree that ‘bang for the buck’ matters and support tax cuts and spending increases based on higher ‘multipliers.’

The two ‘sides of the story’ are in fact on the same side, just with differing degrees. The media does not feature the true deficit dove story. Nor do any of the true doves have even a small piece of the administration’s ear, or the ear of anyone in Congress willing to speak out. There are maybe a hundred of them, including many senior economics professors. The nagging question is why this professional, highly educated, highly experienced collection of true doves, who happen to be correct and could get us back to full employment and prosperity in reasonably short order, does not get a fair hearing.

The answer may be credentials. My BA in Economics from the University of Connecticut in 1971 doesn’t cut it, nor the fact that the very large fund I managed was the highest rated firm for the time I ran it. And my net worth never getting anywhere near a billion hasn’t helped either. Seems billionaires get celebrity status and airtime for just about anything they want to say.

The same is true of the Economics professors who’ve got it right. Without being from and at the usual ‘top tier’ schools none can even get published in main stream economics journals, where submissions featuring obvious accounting realities are routinely rejected. In fact, any economist who states accounting identities and operational realities such as ‘deficits = savings’ or ‘loans create deposits’ or

‘Federal spending is not constrained by revenues’ is immediately labeled ‘heterodox’ and unworthy of serious mainstream consideration. Even the late Wynne Godley, who did have reasonable credentials as head of Cambridge Economics, and was the number one UK economics forecaster, was labeled ‘unorthodox’ because his mathematical models featured the deficits = savings accounting identity.

The breakthrough could happen at any time, in addition to economists at the ‘right schools’ or right financial sector firms, there are government officials with sufficient credentials to lead the breakthrough, including the head of the CBO and OMB, the Treasury Secretary and Fed Chairman, as well as former Fed officials, particularly from monetary operations.

Unfortunately Treasury Secretary Geithner, a potential hero due to the celebrity of his office, and the rest of the G20 are acting out the deficit hawk position, acting as if they do indeed believe the US has run out of money, is dependent on its creditors, and could be the next Greece. They speak as if they have no idea that the euro nations operate within a unique institutional structure that puts them in a ‘revenue constrained’ financial position similar to the US States, but with nothing equivalent to the US Treasury to run the countercyclical deficits for them. They speak as if they have no idea that the US, UK, Japan, and others with ‘normal’ central governments taxes function to regulate aggregate demand, and not to raise revenue per se. They act as if they don’t realize they can immediately make the fiscal adjustments- cut taxes and/or increase government spending- that will restore aggregate demand, employment, and output. In short, they act as if they were all still on the gold standard, an institutional arrangement where indeed government spending was constrained by revenues, and, as a consequence, the world witnessed repetitive, devastating deflationary depressions, far worse than what we’ve seen so far in this cycle.

The results of unnecessarily allowing a universal lack of aggregate demand to persist are already tragic, and if policy continues along the line of this weekend’s G20 results no relief is in sight, and it could all get a whole lot worse.

(Cross-posted at Fiscal Sustainability and The Huffington Post)

Fiscal Sustainability and the American Future

10:52 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

The purpose of the President’s recently constituted National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform as stated in Section 4 of the President’s Executive Order establishing the Commission is:

Sec. 4. Mission. The Commission is charged with identifying policies to improve the fiscal situation in the medium term and to achieve fiscal sustainability over the long run. Specifically, the Commission shall propose recommendations designed to balance the budget, excluding interest payments on the debt, by 2015. This result is projected to stabilize the debt-to-GDP ratio at an acceptable level once the economy recovers. The magnitude and timing of the policy measures necessary to achieve this goal are subject to considerable uncertainty and will depend on the evolution of the economy. In addition, the Commission shall propose recommendations that meaningfully improve the long-run fiscal outlook, including changes to address the growth of entitlement spending and the gap between the projected revenues and expenditures of the Federal Government.

Key words/phrases in this statement are: “fiscal situation,” “fiscal sustainability,” “balance the budget, excluding interest payments on the debt, by 2015,” “stabilize the debt-to-GDP ratio at an acceptable level once the economy recovers,” policy measures subject to uncertainty depending on the evolution of the economy,” and changes “that meaningfully improve the long-run fiscal outlook,” and “the gap between the projected revenues and expenditures of the Federal Government.” How are these related to each other?

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